Board OKs restoring Capitol statues, launching money drive

MADISON — The board that approves state Capitol repairs overwhelmingly agreed Monday to restore two statues that protesters ripped down last month during a wild night of demonstrations against racist police last month.

The state Capitol and Executive Residence Board voted unanimously to repair statues of Col. Hans Christian Heg, a Wisconsin abolitionist killed in combat during the Civil War, and a woman embodying the state's Forward motto.

“We've got to fix this stuff,” Republican state Sen. Luther Olsen, a member of the board, said. “It's just a dirty rotten shame this stuff had to be defaced and damaged but that's the world we're living in so let's get it fixed.”

Photos the state Department of Administration provided to the board show protesters broke off a leg and tore the head off the 9-foot-6-inch tall Heg statue. Other photos show the 7-foot Forward statue was scratched and dented and one of its fingers was broken off.

DOA is still compiling a cost estimate for restoring the statues, Paula Veltum, DOA’s deputy facilities administrator, told the board. She noted that Heg's head is still missing and the agency plans to replace it by recasting the head of another Heg statue in the town of Norway. The Wisconsin Historical Society plans to start a fundraising drive to raise $50,000 to cover the insurance deductible for damage protesters caused to the statues, the state Capitol grounds and the Capitol building, she said. The board signed off on that effort unanimously as well.

Heg was a Norwegian immigrant who became an outspoken abolitionist, serving in the 15th Wiscosnin Regiment during the Civil War. He was killed at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863. His statue, funded by donations from the Norwegian Society of America, had stood outside the state Capitol since 1926.

Protesters tore the statue down and dumped it in a nearby lake during a demonstration against police racism on June 23. They also tore down Forward on the other side of the Capitol. Protesters attacked state Sen. Tim Carpenter as he filmed them with his cellphone. Video shows Carpenter collapsing on the Capitol lawn after the beating.

The protest was one of a series of demonstrations that shook downtown Madison after the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died on Memorial Day after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into his neck for nearly eight minutes. The violence on June 23 erupted after Madison police arrested a Black protester who was entering downtown businesses wielding a baseball bat.

Why protesters targeted two statues with no racist history remains unclear. Some demonstrators said they ripped them down because they represent a false reality of racial equality in Wisconsin.

Heg's great-great-grandson, James Heg, of Chelan, Washington, sent a letter to Gov. Tony Evers days after that statue fell asking the state to restore it.

“I'm pretty happy right now,” James Heg said in a telephone interview Monday. “(The unanimous vote) was quite gratifying. I was pushing on an open door.”

“He's an admirable guy,” another great-great grandson, Christopher Heg, said of the abolitionist during a telephone interview from his home in Seattle on Monday. “He deserves recognition.”

DOA said in materials provided to the board that the statues could restored to their existing pedestals by spring. Several board members cautioned the department not to move too quickly and to develop a plan to protect the sculptures. If the statues go up again too soon protesters could tear them down again, they warned.

“I would hate to see us recast statues and nine months later watch them get dragged down the road again,” Born said.

Carpenter, a Democrat, and Republican state Rep. Hutton introduced a bill last week that would make defacing a statue a felony. The bill sparked a bitter Twitter battle between Carpenter and Nada Elmikashfi, a Black Sudanese immigrant running for an open state Senate seat representing Madison. Elmikashfki tweeted Thursday that the bill was “absolute (profanity)" and he's trying to block “our civil rights movement.”

Carpenter, who is white, responded Friday that Elmikashfi doesn't have a “clue” and that he's a Black ally.

The board also considered a request Monday from Michael Johnson, one of Madison's leading Black activists, to erect a statue of Vel Phillips on the Capitol square but took no action. Democratic state Sen. Fred Risser, the board chairman, stressed that the board can only approve or reject projects, not initiate them.

Evers sent the board a letter Monday saying he supports the idea. DOA Secretary Joel Brennan told the board that the department is working with Phillips’ family and other stakeholders on a formal proposal.

Phillips was the first woman and first Black member of the Milwaukee Common Council. She was also the state’s first Black judge as well as its first female and first Black secretary of state.